Anger and despair swept through the halls. A mortifying 32 points punctured an already grotesque Welsh-Ryan Arena scoreboard. Forty painful minutes marred what was supposed to be a special night for one of Northwestern basketball’s great servicemen.
A team looked, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Following Thursday’s hopeless 59-32 loss to Penn State, the Wildcats held a meeting. The query, coach Chris Collins said, was simple.
"Do we want to keep playing?" he asked his team. "Or do we want to just ride this out and fade into oblivion?"
The answer didn’t require any words. Instead, it came Sunday in West Lafayette.
Drew Crawford scored 27 points and pulled down 7 rebounds, Alex Olah added 14 and 7 of his own, and the Wildcats ensured a positive end to their season with a 74-65 win over Purdue.
"We’ve been a group of fighters," Collins said Sunday following the win. "We all realized that we’ve worked too hard to get to where we’ve gotten to let it end by us just fading away. That’s not who we’ve been."
Prior to Sunday’s regular season finale at Mackey Arena, Northwestern had lost seven straight games. With a loss to the Boilermakers, the Wildcats would’ve likely ended Collins’ first season in charge on a nine-game losing streak.
But ‘likely’ isn’t exactly a word that has come to be associated with this team. Throughout this season, NU’s biggest wins have come exactly when expectations have been at their lowest and attitudes at their most negative.
"When we lost JerShon [Cobb to injury], people left us for dead – and rightfully so, we haven’t played well," Collins said. "Our goal was to come in here [against Purdue] and let everybody know that we’re not done; and we did that."
The win means Northwestern will avoid a last place Big Ten finish, and gives Collins and the returning players momentum heading into next year. But more importantly, Collins will tell you, it demonstrates something about this team’s mentality.
"Forget about next year," he said. "[It’s big] going into next week. This might have been our best win of the year, in terms of the circumstances. We’ve had a rough few weeks. Thursday night, we hit a real low point. For the guys to come in here and win on the road against a determined Purdue team, it was a special win."
Drew Crawford added, "being able to finish the regular season on a strong note is great. It really says something about the group we have, being able to bounce back, learn from our mistakes, and play with confidence today."
With Collins’ first regular season now in the books, the level of success achieved is still unclear. Inevitably, there were negatives – namely, an offense that, efficiency-wise, ranked among the nation’s worst. There were also positives – a 4-5 road record in Big Ten play, naturally, tells of a team high on toughness and togetherness, and a coach that fosters those two qualities.
"On the road, we tend to really band together as a team," Crawford said. "It’s a back against the wall mentality. You’ve got thousands of fans rooting against you, everyone is rooting for you to fail, and that’s when we’re most together as a team."
And it’s attitudes and attributes like those which Crawford described that embody what can be considered successful about this season. The palpable results – a 13-18 overall record and a 6-12 conference mark – embody the other side of the story. But Collins is sure to emphasize the former angle.
"We came into this year in the Big Ten and we did not put a number on how many games we wanted to win," Collins says. "All we said was, we want to go into every game in this league, and we want the other team to know when they play us, they’re in for a fight. And other than maybe a couple games, I think we’ve done that. And that’s why I’m really proud."